Debate over a student newspaper at the Virginia Military Institute has escalated to the state attorney general’s office.
VMI’s board of visitors isn’t asking for a review of whether the school’s independent newspaper, The Cadet, deserved to win several awards at the Virginia Press Association’s annual banquet in May, including the top prize for journalistic integrity and community service.
Rather, it’s asking the attorney general’s office to review whether the institute or its board attempted to disparage the newspaper, a claim that began to circulate after Cardinal News and other media reported on the newspaper’s win and on concerns about its contest entry.
The Cadet received the VPA’s highest honor — the first time in association history that it went to a student publication — for a package of articles on diversity, equity and inclusion at the state military college that were primarily skewed against diversity efforts on the Lexington campus.
In addition, in articles about a company’s lawsuit against VMI for procedures awarding its DEI training contract, the newspaper did not disclose that the company was led by The Cadet’s chief funder, class of 1979 alumnus Bob Morris.
Tom Watjen, the president of VMI’s board of visitors and a 1976 graduate, said in a statement posted Monday that he had asked the assistant attorney general assigned to the school to investigate the whether VMI had prompted negative press about The Cadet, and to report to the full board during a closed session at its meeting in September. The attorney general’s office serves as legal counsel for all state schools.
“With this information in hand, the Institute and the board will be able to better determine what, if any, additional actions may be required,” Watjen wrote.
In late May, VPA hired an attorney to review its award procedures, and that report found that no parts of the established judging process had been violated.
But since then, some have accused VMI of pressuring the media or VPA to disparage the newspaper. During a board meeting on July 13, board member Teddy Gottwald, a 1983 graduate of the school, accused VMI’s administration of continually trying to undermine the efforts of the student newspaper.
And a petition started Aug. 1 by The Cadet newspaper’s parent organization, the Cadet Foundation, requested that the board of visitors support the student newspaper and investigate whether VMI’s actions regarding the publication were inappropriate.
Documents obtained via public records requests show that VMI spokesperson Bill Wyatt reached out to VPA shortly after the awards announcement, but not about the journalistic integrity award. He inquired about another Cadet article that had received honors: an investigation of VMI’s cadet counseling center that the student reporter said had been published as an incomplete draft without his knowledge. It won first place for in-depth/investigative reporting in its circulation category.
“I have not yet seen any indications that the administration is intentionally engaged in proactively sharing information with individuals or news organizations to lead them to a particular story line, something implied by a petition being circulated in social media,” Watjen wrote.
VMI’s student newspaper was resurrected in 2021 after a five-year hiatus. Morris worked with a group of cadets to relaunch the newspaper, although this iteration, unlike its predecessor, is not sanctioned by the institute.
The school has not granted the newspaper a permit, which would allow cadets flexibility to pursue reporting amid strict schedules maintained by the institute.
VMI has said it’s not convinced that the newspaper is produced wholly by the cadets, rather than by their alumni mentors. Morris has maintained that students have control of the publication.
The school gained national attention after allegations of widespread racism in 2020 led then-Gov. Ralph Northam to order an investigation of practices at VMI.
Since then, VMI alumni have found themselves largely split into two camps: those who support the college and accept that it has evolved from its historic roots, including strong ties to Confederate Civil War history, and those who say VMI’s tradition has been broken down by the “woke” left.